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How Social Media Can Give a False Impression of the Political Climate

Think everybody is itching for a fight? Think again.

by Katie Moritz
November 13, 2019 | Living

Yes, political civility feels bad right now, and people feel it's only gotten more brutal since the 2016 presidential election, according to the Pew Research Center.

But is it the worst ever?

"There's always perception in our current moment that our moment is the worst," said Alexandra Hudson, a research fellow at the American Institute of Economic Research who's working on a book on political civility. But "we weren't around 100 years ago or 200 years ago or even 2,000 years ago." She pointed to the 1800 presidential race between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams as a particularly nasty time in politics, too.

There's one big difference, though.

"One thing we didn't have in ancient Rome or the early American founding era was social media," Hudson said.

With these tools, each of us has the ability to offend thousands or millions of people instantly. We can also be offended instantly. That's huge. And because discourse can devolve, and spread, so quickly on social media, it's easy to feel like we're in a time of great political divide.

And we are divided, to an extent.

"We have all backed into our political corners and filter every conversation though the bubble of our own political views," said Andrew Selepak, a media professor and director of the graduate program in social media at the University of Florida. "We de-friend people on social media that we disagree with politically, and we even tend to live in neighborhoods with politically likeminded people."

But what we're seeing on social media is not representative of the vast majority of people in the U.S., Hudson said. There's a "disconnect between what we hear on the news every day and the lived experience of most Americans," she said. "It is a more hopeful story than what we tend to believe."

A recent study of political tribalism in the U.S. showed that only 8 percent of Americans are among the most liberal, called "progressive activists" in the report. Six percent are the most conservative, called "devoted conservatives." Another 19 percent are "traditional conservatives."

An illustration of two people arguing. Rewire PBS Our Future Social Media
Most people would actually rather hear out other viewpoints than argue about them.

What remains is the majority of Americans — 67 percent of people — referred to as "the exhausted majority." This group is made up of traditional liberals, passive liberals, moderates and the politically disengaged, according to the study.

These groups "share a sense of fatigue with our polarized national conversation, a willingness to be flexible in their political viewpoints, and a lack of voice in the national conversation," the report states.

It might seem like everyone is fighting online constantly. But these numbers suggest that "if we're gauging the health of our democracy by what we see on Twitter and what we hear on Fox News," we're not getting even close to the whole picture, Hudson said.

In fact, constant clashing makes most people pretty uncomfortable, no matter which way they lean politically.

"When people are saying we need more civility in politics... its often they feel... that our representatives or pundits, they're being impolite and they're rude to each other, and it stresses people out when they watch it, and it denies the opinion of the other person," said University of Missouri associate professor Lynn Itagaki, who researches civility.

There are a lot of "people who are deeply troubled by the state of our public discourse" and their "desire for change means more to them than having the last word," Hudson said.

[ICYMI: How Does the Facebook Algorithm Help Shape Our Opinions?]

Don't get caught in an echo chamber

Not only are political clashes amplified on social media, the platforms themselves help to cement our beliefs and isolate us from other opinions.

Facebook and other platforms learn what we like and show it to us so we keep scrolling and stay on the sites longer. While that sounds harmless and maybe even obvious on its surface, it can cause an echo chamber effect when it comes to our political beliefs.

In order to keep us on the platform, social sites will show us stuff we agree with already, not stuff that challenges our political beliefs. And that can cause us to miss important trends or movements that could have serious implications for our world.

Claire Woodcock, digital strategist for Razorfish London, gave this Brexit example in a previous Rewire article.

"I'm from London; I really wanted to stay (in the European Union)," she said. "All of my friends in London were voting to stay. Everyone I could see in social media were voting to stay, and when we woke up to the results it was really hard, because we had no idea that that sentiment of opinion was out there...

"I really wish that I'd have known before the vote happened what the other side's point of view was, because it's been a long, hard process to come to terms with what we're going to do, the fact that we're leaving Europe."

When people do come across new information on social media, they're not likely to change their opinions. But 14 percent of Americans did change their mind on a social or political issue because of something they saw on social media between 2017 and 2018, according to the Pew Research Center.

Katie Moritz
Katie Moritz was Rewire's senior editor from 2016-2020. She is a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.
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